For over 400yrs, the opulent coffee houses of Vienna have attracted the intelligensia of Europe but are now in decline, a victim of globalisation.
In 1683, when the Ottoman Turks were defeated at the Battle of Vienna by the armies of the Hapsburg Empire they left behind them sacks of mysterious green beans. Georg Kolschitzky, a Polish hero of the siege, claimed as his reward these sacks of beans and with them, so legend goes, he opened the first coffee shop in Vienna.
The Beginnings of a Cultural Phenomenon
The opening of coffee shops in Vienna coincided with another new development; the newspaper. The coffee shop became a place where one could drink coffee and keep abreast with world events in a leisurely fashion, therefore a place for the wealthy. It was where one could discuss politics uncensored, criticise the emperor and speak freely at a time when the Austrian people had limited freedom of speech.
Kolschitzky sweetened the bitter taste of the Turkish drink by adding milk, cream or honey and soon the Viennese-style of coffee drinking was copied throughout central Europe. Most of Vienna’s traditional coffee houses were built during the 19thCentury CE when the decision was taken to dismantle the city walls and construct boulevards in a ring around the city lined with imposing public buildings and parks.
The Austrian Empire was at its height and the construction of the new buildings reflected the great confidence of the time. Coffee houses were built as palaces, with classical design of columns reaching to ceilings 20 foot high, magnificent chandeliers and the ubiquitous use of velvet and marble. Established in 1876, the Café Central is a typical example of a splendid coffee house salon with an exquisite interior of dazzling chandeliers, archways and columns.
Famous Customers and Individual Coffee House Identity
Coffee houses became the preferred meeting place of the middle classes, politicians, journalists, politicians and writers. Billiard tables, daily newspapers and chessboards were provided for the clientele to while away the time and discuss contemporary issues.
Coffee shops created their own identities. Some attracted artists, others journalists, politicians had their favourite and patrons even had their own table within their favourite coffee shop. The Viennese style of lingering all day over a cup of coffee while reading the free newspaper or debating various issues attracted the intelligentsia of Europe.
Famous customers included Lenin, Trotsky and Maskaryk who became the first president of Czechoslovakia. Other patrons, in addition to those plotting the downfall of Europe’s governments and Royal families, were artists such as Gustav Klimt a leader of the Secessionist Movement that rebelled against the Viennese Art Establishment. The founder of the Zionist movement, journalist Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian Jew was also another visitor. Aspiring artist, Adolf Hitler, stood outside Cafe Central trying to sell his drawings to the wealthy clientele.
Coffee Houses a Victim of Globalisation
Today the Viennese are one of the highest per-capita consumption of coffee in the world – 8.5kgs each year. They consider themselves connoisseurs of coffee and coffee houses’ menus can offer a hundred different recipes varying the quantities of milk, coffee, liqueurs, cream and toppings. The favourite coffee of Vienna is Melange, milky coffee with a topping of cream.
Although still popular, the traditional coffee houses are in decline, facing problems with high rental costs, maintenance and wages, and only the ones in the tourist areas have a future, being dependent on visitors to the city. Global brands such as Starbucks have opened several outlets in the city and busy Viennese are shunning the traditional coffee shops preferring the convenience of the takeaway.
However, the lure of the beautiful and traditional coffee shops ensures that the largest and most famous establishments will survive.
- Eyewitness Travel Guides Vienna by Stephen Brook 1994, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, London
- City Guide Vienna by Nicholas T. Parsons 1997, A&C Black Publishers Ltd, London
- The Rough Guide to Vienna by Rob Humphreys 2001, Rough Guides Ltd, London